As SoapNet celebrates its fifth anniversary and passes the 40 million-household-subscriber milestone, Deborah Blackwell has reason to be pleased with the 24-hour cable network’s momentum. As senior VP and general manager since June 2001, Ms. Blackwell has overseen an expansion of the network’s programming, budget and distribution. A graduate of Harvard Business School and a former TV talent agent, she also served as president of an Internet start-up called MyHome .com.
Her interview with TelevisionWeek Editor Alex Ben Block has been edited for length and content.
TelevisionWeek: What are some of SoapNet’s key accomplishments since you joined the network?
Deborah Blackwell: When I had been at the network just about a year, we changed our entire on-air look and feel and we adopted a new logo. It really was a rebranding for SoapNet, and that was a very proud moment, because our creative was really applauded internally and externally. In fact, we started winning awards. We got Promax&BDA Awards. It was just an extremely great accomplishment to give our network a look and feel that matched the kind of very contemporary and vibrant viewers whom we have.
That was the summer of 2002. And the same week that we launched our new look and feel, we launched our talk show, `Soap Talk’ with Lisa Rinna and Ty Treadway. `Soap Talk’ has been such a wonderful show for us. This is our third year in a row that we have received Daytime Emmy nominations for it. We’re up against `[Live With] Regis and Kelly,’ `[The] Ellen DeGeneres [Show],’ `The View’ and `Dr. Phil’ for best talk show and host. It’s so gratifying that as a midsize cable network with much smaller budgets than those kind of shows, we’ve been able to achieve that level of creative excellence.
Something else was a very exciting strategic breakthrough for us in March of 2004. We added `Days of Our Lives’ to our lineup. As you probably know, SoapNet was launched with our ABC-owned soaps: `All My Children,’ `One Life to Live’ and `General Hospital.’ They formed an extremely powerful programming block for us, but we had always said that we wanted to embrace the whole world of soaps, not just ABC soaps. We had told our cable affiliates that that was our vision. So when we added `Days of Our Lives,’ which is an NBC soap owned by Sony, we really made good on that promise. That was a major accomplishment.
TVWeek: When did you start including nighttime soaps in your programming?
Ms. Blackwell: We had classic prime-time soaps since the beginning. We launched with `Falcon Crest’ and `Knots Landing’ and several others. But it was definitely a big moment when we launched `Dallas.’ Everyone loved `Dallas’; it’s been a big hit for us. But then we also have acquired `Dynasty,’ and this last fall, our big excitement was that we added `Melrose Place,’ and this January, `Beverly Hills 90210.’ So we feel like at this point we have the perfect lineup of the most prominent of the prime-time soaps as well as our great lineup of daytime soaps.
TVWeek: Are you primarily trying to appeal to women 18 to 49?
Ms. Blackwell: Yes, they’re our target. I don’t know whether you’re aware of what interesting demographics we have at SoapNet. We actually have a very different audience from the people who watch during the day, because our audiences are primarily working women with a higher household income and level of education than the daytime audience. It is an appealing demographic for advertisers, and it really, from a strategic point of view, was great for The Walt Disney Co., as the producer of three major soaps.
SoapNet was started because of our belief that, as women’s lifestyles changed, it was too hard for working women and even stay-at-home moms, who are very busy these days and can’t necessarily organize their lives around being home at a certain time every day [to watch soaps]. So the theory in starting SoapNet was, let’s give people who are busy during the day a chance to watch their soaps. And the fact that SoapNet has had amazing ratings since day one has proven the gamble paid off. We didn’t cannibalize our existing soap audience; we brought in a whole other group of soap viewers at night.
TVWeek: How much have you been affected by TiVo and other DVRs?
Ms. Blackwell: You know, that was always the question when the network was launched. But we have had powerful ratings since inception, so there is still a great demand for people to watch soaps at night. For example, in February, we were ranked No. 6 for women 18 to 49 in basic cable prime time. And we’ve always been pretty much in the top 10 networks [for the demographic], which is unheard of for a network that is so new. So there is a big audience that wants to watch at night.
But we don’t rely totally on our time shifting as our only value proposition. That’s why we’ve also invested heavily in original programming. We tripled our number of original series this year. We’ve added `Soapography,’ which is our bio show; `1 Day With …,’ which is a day-in-the-life-style show; and we do a lot of specials. And we did our first reality show this year, `I Wanna Be a Soap Star.’
TVWeek: Let’s talk about that. How does that show blend in with the rest of your programming?
Ms. Blackwell: It has been a breakout show for us. I think it was a bold, new direction we went in, and it was very successful for us. Giving away a 13-week contract on `General Hospital’ is arguably the best prize in reality TV. That could be worth more than a million dollars. The show was a hit with our viewers, and certainly we felt as if it really was a service to our fans. That’s what we’re always thinking about. Soap fans are a very passionate group, and in the past there were only a few hours a day when you could indulge your passion for soaps, but now with SoapNet, it’s a 24/7 fan experience. So that gives us the opportunity to go behind the scenes, to get to know the stars and stories better, to have inside access, and to do something like `I Wanna Be a Soap Star,’ which gives insight into the whole process of how you become a star.
We used the real casting director for the show as one of our judges-as was the executive producer of `General Hospital.’ And then a talent manager and a soap actress rounded out the group, so it was very much an authentic look at how they think, how they evaluate people.
[There’s] a super-couple on `General Hospital’ named Nikolas and Emily who came in and coached our contestants: `Here’s how you do a lovemaking scene, and here’s how we get ready to do it.’ Then the contestants had to do it and be judged on it, and of course it’s excruciatingly embarrassing. It made for great television, and I think it did deepen the fan involvement with the show. It was so successful for us that we’re about to shoot our second season of it. This time the prize will be a 13-week contract on `All My Children,’ and you know, we’re so lucky that the show trusts us enough to allow us to cast a new role for them.
TVWeek: The nature of soaps is often romantic fantasy. Do they attract a certain kind of fan who’s into vicarious living?
Ms. Blackwell: We say it’s an aspirational experience, because I think we can vicariously experience all the emotional highs and lows of the characters in our shows, and we love seeing all these people who are all gorgeous and rich, and they have problems like ours, but worse. That’s a lot of the fun of the shows. And when you think about the emotional driver for soap viewing, it’s that you can have a 40-year relationship with a character on a soap. That kind of longevity is unique to the genre. That’s very special. We see our characters on the show growing old along with us. Of course, the women on the soaps are always gorgeous, no matter what age, but that character longevity and the romantic fantasy, and then the amazing plot twists-those are what hook you.
We’re always getting these off-the-chart rankings from Nielsen. They measure loyalty to a cable network in terms of frequency of viewing and average number of minutes viewed, and I think in February, we were
the No. 1 network in frequency of viewing. From the minute I heard about SoapNet, I knew it would be successful, because I knew how passionate and loyal soap fans are.
TVWeek: Are you one of them?
Ms. Blackwell: Oh, absolutely! Of course.
TVWeek: And you were even before you took the job?
Ms. Blackwell: I wasn’t really. I didn’t have much exposure to soaps because I’m a working woman. I had years in the TV movie and miniseries arena, so programming for women was really my interest. I had briefly worked on `The Doctors’ early in my career at NBC in New York as a unit manager. I remember when I did that, I got so interested in the stories that I started getting the old scripts from the writers and reading them and trying to figure out what had happened. It’s a fun genre, and one that, as I’ve worked at SoapNet, it’s been really fun to embrace and to work with. There’s an experience I don’t think many cable executives have, that we have all the time-having fans come up to us and say, `Thank you so much for giving us SoapNet.’ It’s just amazing to get that kind of response.
TVWeek: How has that translated into sales?
Ms. Blackwell: Ad sales? We have a very interesting story from an ad sales point of view. As you’re probably aware, most cable networks try to wait as long as they can before getting a Nielsen book because you don’t necessarily expect to get a lot of audience response in your early days. In the case of SoapNet, a decision was made very early on to do a Nielsen book. This was bold, and this was risky, but the gamble paid off because, in fact, we had very high ratings from the beginning. It’s the benefit of a built-in audience. So that was in the spring of 2001. The plan was to launch paid advertising at the end of September 2001. What intervened was Sept. 11, and so we wondered whether it was a good economic climate to go ahead and launch our paid ad sales, but we made a decision to go forward. And interestingly enough, we were something like 80 percent sold-out the first month, 90 percent the second month. By November of 2001 we were 99 percent sold-out every day of every week, and have been ever since.
TVWeek: Can you give me specific numbers?
Ms. Blackwell: Those aren’t numbers we give publicly, but I can tell you that our advertising is commensurate with the strong ratings that we have. We have had also an unusual situation, because national advertisers often feel a network needs to be in 40 [million] or 50 million homes before they’re going to become involved, but in our case, we had national advertisers from launch. JCPenney was our first national advertiser.
TVWeek: Because of the demographics?
Ms. Blackwell: We gave them the good ratings in women 18 to 49 that they were looking for. I think part of what happened is advertisers are used to the soap genre. They’re comfortable with it. I always joke that we’re the only genre that’s named after its advertisers, the soap opera. So we have wonderful advertiser response, and that is something that we are particularly proud of with SoapNet.
TVWeek: Your network currently reaches 40 million households. How difficult has it been to build distribution?
Ms. Blackwell: We’ve always had the advantage that we own a niche. Everybody knows what the niche is; they get it; there’s nothing else like it. And I don’t know if you recall, but at the time Disney announced that it planned to launch a soap opera channel, Sony had also announced its intention to launch a soap opera channel. The Sony channel did not get off the ground. The Disney channel did, and fortunately, we have retained that first mover, first and only status. So I think we’ve always been really helped by having a very clear brand identity. So for example, in six out of the past 12 months, SoapNet was either the No. 1- or No. 2-fastest-growing network, in terms of household viewers.
TVWeek: What do you project, going forward, in terms of gaining subscribers?
Ms. Blackwell: Our goal is full distribution, 90 million homes. It’s very exciting because DirecTV is moving us to its most widely distributed tier [as of April 4], and we’re very excited about that. We believe it will serve as an important signal to the rest of our industry.
TVWeek: How does this job shape up to other jobs you’ve had?
Ms. Blackwell: This is my favorite job. The entrepreneurial aspect is really fun for me. When I left William Morris in 1999, I became president of an Internet start-up at IdeaLab and had a really interesting experience working in the Internet, but one thing I learned is how difficult it is to build a brand from scratch. When I heard about SoapNet, I said to myself, it’s going to be successful because, among other things, we’re going to leverage these established brands of `All My Children,’ `One Life to Live’ and `General Hospital.’ I felt like it was an opportunity to be an entrepreneur but having such strong building blocks.
People often are surprised when I talk about being inside the Disney company and having a great entrepreneurial experience, but I feel that Anne Sweeney has been an amazing boss in giving us the latitude to do our thing. We feel like a scrappy, entrepreneurial group operating with the support of the Disney Company, and of course, to be able to be part of the affiliate sales group, which also sells ESPN and the Disney Channel, it’s very powerful for us.
TVWeek: What are the challenges ahead?
Ms. Blackwell: One is the distribution challenge. It’s a very competitive environment in terms of gaining subs. We’re also challenged in looking at the new technology platforms. We believe that we’re building a powerful brand. Really, we look at our brethren at ESPN as a model, and we believe it is a brand that will be successful across all the new technology platforms. So we’re looking at what is SoapNet VOD? What is SoapNet Broadband? Does SoapNet go on wireless platforms? We want to, in partnership with our cable affiliates, be able to devise exciting offerings in all these areas. We’re looking at an interactive SoapNet product that we would do in partnership with some satellite affiliates, so it’s such an exciting time in our business.
TVWeek: Are there any other challenges you can talk about?
Ms. Blackwell: Maintaining our creative excellence is a challenge. We’ve been getting Emmy nominations and Promax awards, and we’ve always felt, as a new company in this highly competitive environment, it was really our job to break through the clutter with marketing that would be exciting and attention-getting. And with original programming, that would do the same.
So far, we have a pretty good track record on that, but maintaining that is a big challenge.